“Writing takes a lot of time, and it’s time you have to spend alone. If you’re going to be a writer, and you’re serious about it, you should be writing every day, putting in hours of work by yourself in your office or wherever you write. You have to do the work.” — Robert Beatty
Asheville-based author Robert Beatty wrote his first novel as an 11-year old. He’s been pursuing literature, in some form, ever since.
Sure, he’s delved into other things, like founding his own internet software company, starting a family and rehabilitating wild animals. But through it all, he never stopped writing, even as rejection letters from publishers poured in by the hundreds.
“I almost lost hope many times,” he said. “But the one thing that kept me going was that each book I completed was better than the last. I felt that, if I lived long enough, I’d develop my skills and be able to publish a book someday.”
Beatty’s resilience is the literary world’s gain.
His breakthrough as an author came in 2015 with “Serafina and the Black Cloak,” the debut novel in the “Serafina” series, which became a New York Times bestseller. The fourth book, “Serafina and the Seven Stars,” will be released July 9. A pre-release launch party will be held at the Asheville Mall Barnes & Noble July 7, complete with a portable planetarium, living statues, roving magicians and more.
The Serafina series has raked in the honors since its genesis. It won the Southern Book Prize in 2016, and was included on Barnes & Noble’s Best Books for Young Readers list (2016) and Amazon’s Best Books list (2017).
A week before the pre-release launch party in Asheville, Beatty agreed to a brief phone interview. Here’s what he had to say, edited for brevity and clarity.
OL: Are you excited for the pre-launch party in your home city of Asheville?
Robert Beatty: It’s where I’ve lived for a long time and it’s where the book takes place, as well. So absolutely. It’s Serafina Central: the epicenter of the Serafina series, as well as the fanbase. It’s always fun to have the first launch event in a local bookstore here and kick things off right. This is where we’ve started every book tour.
OL: Without giving away too much, what surprises should Serafina fans expect from the new book?
RB: There will definitely be some surprises. It’s the continued adventures of Serafina and Braedan at Biltmore Estate. There’s a whole new mystery, and whole new set of dangers they’ll have to face. There are also some surprising reversals and twists they have to deal with — and the reader has to deal with.
OL: The books seem to appeal equally to both kids and adults. How does that strike you?
RB: I do love that the books are being enjoyed by people from different generations. In many cases, we’ll have a girl of 10 or 12, her mom and also her grandmother all reading it together — sometimes in person, sometimes scattered across the US. They’ll get together and talk about it. I think it’s cool when it’s multi-generational like that, and actually, more adults purchase and read the books than kids. So while it’s geared toward young readers, we like to say it’s for everybody from 8 to 108.
“I think it’s cool when it’s multi-generational like that, and actually, more adults purchase and read the books than kids. So while it’s geared toward young readers, we like to say it’s for everybody from 8 to 108.”
OL: Why should someone who’s never read a Serafina book start now?
RB: It’s historically and geographically accurate to the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Biltmore Estate. It’s also a general mystery thriller story that people can enjoy, even if they’re not familiar with this area. It’s a story about a 12-year old girl who lives in the basement of a giant mansion where, in the floors above, fancy rich people from the Gilded Age roam about.
Serafina and her Pa, the estate’s maintenance man, live in the basement. So the whole series has that upstairs/downstairs, have/have nots vibe to it. Some people have described it as Stephen King meets Downton Abbey, and so it’s a blend of that history/mystery, and there’s a magic element, too.
OL: How have your daughters helped write the books?
RB: Before my daughters were of reading age, I was writing thriller books for adults. I was enjoying that, but as my daughters started reading, they were literally pounding on my door and asking me to write something for them to read. So I decided to try that for fun, and it turned out that I totally loved it — even more than any other kind of writing I’d done.
I started writing the first Serafina book specifically for them, and that allowed me to focus my attention and voice and really gave me a focus I’d never had before as a writer. I became very passionate about the story, and wanted it to succeed, so I involved my daughters in the writing process. We’d go to the Biltmore Estate and walk down corridors of the mansion and come up with the plot and the characters and the different scenes and so on. It became a family effort with my three daughters, my wife and myself. As I would write the chapters, I’d read to them and they’d give me feedback. They were sort of my built in focus group and my writing collaborators
“I involved my daughters in the writing process. We’d go to Biltmore Estate and walk down corridors of the mansion and come up with the plot and the characters and the different scenes and so on. It became a family effort with my three daughters, my wife and myself.”
OL: How long have you been writing in any capacity?
RB: I began writing novels when I was 11 years old, and I’ve been writing novels and practicing ever since. I’ve always been passionate about it. I always wanted it to be my career. It’s the one thing in my life I’ve always done. True, I’ve done many different things, but I’ve always been writing at the same time.
I got my degree in engineering, and went on to found my own internet software company. I was CEO of that for many years, and I enjoyed the technical side of the company, but through it all, I was still writing novels.
I reached a point in my corporate career where I was able to sell my company, at which point I turned to writing full time. A number of years after that, I made a commitment, and landed my first publishing contract, with “Serafina and the Black Cloak,” the first book in the series.
OL: Were any of your pre-Serafina novels ever published?
RB: Much to my frustration, I wasn’t being published. But it wasn’t because I wasn’t trying. I got hundreds of rejections on my earlier works. I almost lost hope many times, but the one thing I did know was that each book I completed was better than the last.
“I almost lost hope many times, but the one thing I did know was that each book I completed was better than the last.”
I could sense that “OK, I’m not a very good writer at this point, but I’m getting better.” I kept practicing, and reading books about writing and taking on mentors to help improve my writing skills. I felt that, if I lived long enough, I’d slowly but surely develop my skills to where I may be able to publish a book. And that finally happened.
My breakthrough novel, was the one I wrote for my kids, “Serafina and the Black Cloak.” It’s referred to as my first novel, but it’s really my first novel that was published. I wrote many novels prior to that, and I’ve found that’s normal for most writers. Some people get published their first try, but in many cases, a writer takes a few tries before they break through.
OL: What lessons did those rejections teach you?
RB: Writing takes a lot of time, and it’s time you have to spend alone. If you’re going to be a writer, and you’re serious about it, you should be writing every day, putting in hours of work by yourself in your office or wherever you write. You have to do the work.
Talking about writing doesn’t make you a writer, and waiting for inspiration doesn’t make you a writer. Writing, for me, and I think for many people, is a job and a skill set. You can learn it. It’s not something you’re born with, it’s something you learn — similar to being a mechanic or a software programmer: it’s a job, and you have to do it everyday to get better over time.
OL: I know you also wrote a well-received book outside of the Serafina series called “Willa of the Wood.” Can you talk about it?
RB: In some ways, Willa is similar to Serafina. She’s from the same era, somewhat the same region — the Great Smoky Mountains. But Willa is a different character as well. Serafina is a fierce, brave combative character who, when there’s danger, she’ll run toward it. Willa is more gentle. She has many adventures and conflicts, but doesn’t solve her problems through fighting. She’s a gentler soul. The Willa series is focused on the forest and the mountains — the sacred nature of the forest. It’s much more about environmentalism than the human history of Biltmore Estate.
“The Willa series is focused on the forest and the mountains. the sacred nature of the forest. It’s much more about environmentalism than the human history of Biltmore Estate.”
“Willa of the Wood” is the story of an unusual 12-year old forest girl who lives deep in the Great Smoky Mountains. It takes place in the 1900s, when there were pioneers in log cabins and loggers coming in. Willa lives in the forest, but the forest is changing, because of the invasion of these human beings coming into her world. It’s very much a story of her and her race of people adapting to the incursion of these human beings. It’s a lot about prejudice and environmentalism and a clash of cultures — things like that.
OL: What will be the future of the Serafina series? Any more books?
RB: The first three books were planned. They’re a unified arc that you could say have a beginning, middle and end. The fourth book, coming out now, is a whole new story arc. There are new threats, new dangers, new enemies. It’s still Serafina and Braeden at the Biltmore, but it’s a whole new mystery that’s unrelated to the previous one.
It could be the last book, but it isn’t necessarily. It does have a satisfying ending that wraps up the story — it’s not a cliffhanger. But it’s possible that more books could follow it. I haven’t yet decided if there will be a fifth Serafina book or not, so it depends on a number of external factors — like if people even want a fifth Serafina book.
Read the full article in The Biltmore Beacon.